Listening to Grammar, Too: Heb 2:11-15

Note: my younger self missed the part where in Greek neuter plural nouns occasionally take singular verbs, so this may all be wrestling to no good end. Signed, my older self.

It occurs to me that I really don't have the scholarly consensus I'd like on the points of syntax that I'm trying to make. Makes me feel a bit like Granville Sharp. But I'm going to keep going on the basis of what appears to work, without trusting it too much. I know that I'm a theologian, and I'm trying to leave as much theology out of my exegesis as possible, and focus on the bare text before its meaning.

That said, Hebrews is such a theologically abused text. It needs all the strict attention to the bare text that it can get! It needs audience before it needs interpretation. So I'm going to ask you to hear another point along with me.

The author of Hebrews seems content, in his complex sentences, to leave cases imperfectly aligned with expectations here and there. And when we read the text, we're inclined to jump from case to case and try to tie things together, wherever they fit. I've been noticing a marked interest in noun-system grammar, and a willingness to simply correct the verb when it's "wrong." And that seems to me like the absolute last thing a native-speaker would do on hearing the sentence.

Case in point, Hebrews 2:11-15:
ὁ τε γὰρ ἁγιάζων καὶ οἱ ἁγιαζόμενοι ἐξ ἑνὸς πάντες · δι’ ἣν αἰτίαν οὐκ ἐπαισχύνεται ἀδελφοὺς αὐτοὺς καλεῖν, λέγων, ἀπαγγελῶ τὸ ὄνομά σου τοῖς ἀδελφοῖς μου, ἐν μέσῳ ἐκκλησίας ὑμνήσω σε · καὶ πάλιν, ἐγὼ ἔσομαι πεποιθὼς ἐπ’ αὐτῷ · καὶ πάλιν, ἰδοὺ ἐγὼ καὶ τὰ παιδία ἅ μοι ἔδωκεν ὁ θεός.

ἐπεὶ οὖν τὰ παιδία κεκοινώνηκεν αἵματος καὶ σαρκός, καὶ αὐτὸς παραπλησίως μετέσχεν τῶν αὐτῶν, ἵνα διὰ τοῦ θανάτου καταργήσῃ τὸν τὸ κράτος ἔχοντα τοῦ θανάτου, τοῦτ’ ἔστιν τὸν διάβολον, καὶ ἀπαλλάξῃ τούτους, ὅσοι φόβῳ θανάτου διὰ παντὸς τοῦ ζῆν ἔνοχοι ἦσαν δουλείας.
Note: some sites prefer to type Greek in a special Greek system and tell you to use a special font. Not me. If the above looks like gibberish (and not just because it's Greek to you), tell your browser to auto-detect Unicode or force UTF-8 encoding. Arial will do just fine. But I will be using simple English transliteration in the main text, apart from citing the passages for reference.

The first paragraph there isn't the real problem, though it has its own issues. I'm gunning for the piece in bold, which opens the second paragraph. Still, to understand it, we need the first part for context. So we'll zip through it briefly.

Hebrews 2:11 is part of proving a point to the audience, and it does so by citing scripture as proof in 2:12-13. Any time you see gar, you need to know that you've got something meant to support what came before it. In this case, we're supporting the author's exegesis of Psalm 8 that we just covered in 2:8-9. In 2:10, the author supports that exegesis with the claim that Jesus' triumph on the cross was appropriate, given that the Messiah is the origin of the salvation of all of the children of God. (Which, remember, is why God is the covenant "father" of the people, from whom they inherit.) And we're about to find out why suffering death was an appropriate triumph, in the support for 2:10 given by the proofs in 2:11-13.

So, in 2:11, we have a supporting claim:
ὁ τε γὰρ ἁγιάζων καὶ οἱ ἁγιαζόμενοι ἐξ ἑνὸς πάντες
The discourse marking te gar sets up that role for what is basically a noun sentence: [ the sanctifying-one and the sanctified-ones from one all ]. Obviously, we need a verb in English. The usual implied verb is some form of "to be." In other words, the audience is going to hear [ ... are ] at the end. In English, we would say, "Both the one who sanctifies and the ones who are sanctified are all from one." We could even say "... all come from the same one."

Now, who are we talking about? The one who sanctifies is the Son, already explained as Jesus. We're asking why it's appropriate that his triumph came in death on a cross. And the author has provided us with the same word in the plural, "sons," in 2:10 to refer to the inheriting children of God. The Son and the sons; the one who sanctifies and the ones who are sanctified. And if all of these come from the same source, they are from God, who is one.

And the author immediately uses this claim, saying, "for which reason he was not ashamed to call them siblings." And there follow three scripture proofs of this. The first is from Psalm 22:22, "I will announce Your name to my siblings; in the midst of the assembly I will sing Your praise." The second two come from Isaiah 8:17-18: "I will remain confident about [YHWH],” and “Behold me, and the children that God gave to me.” We have the sense that the one who intervenes on behalf of the people is one of the people, whether prophet or messiah, and considers the people his responsibility. And more than that, this one calls them siblings and his own God-given children.

And now the author draws a conclusion in the next paragraph, which you can tell from the discourse marker oun, "therefore." And in this conclusion, we come to the problem I mean to deal with in terms of aural grammar. It's not a syntax issue like the one in 2:9 was. It's really grammar, but I still think we have to solve it by listening as the audience of a speaker, and not the readers of a text.

So let's copy down the piece that we're dealing with, here:
ἐπεὶ οὖν τὰ παιδία κεκοινώνηκεν αἵματος καὶ σαρκός, καὶ αὐτὸς παραπλησίως μετέσχεν τῶν αὐτῶν
I've already mentioned the oun, but we have another discourse marker here as well, epei. So the sentence opens with [ since therefore ]. From this we know we're going to get an inference in two parts, and so the next two parts we hear will probably make sense together.

And the next thing we hear is ta paidia, which we just heard in the last of the three scripture citations. It was in the accusative plural there, and it sounds the same here. But as a neutral noun, it could either be the subject or the object of the verb and still sound the same. But one way or another, we know we've just heard a plural noun, [ the children ]. And then we have a verb. We hear the reduplication at the front, ke-, so we know it's perfect tense, we hear the body of the verb koinone-, and we hear the ending -ken. And we know that, whatever the gender of the subject, it's singular. So, right away, the listener knows that ta paidia is not the subject of [ he/she/it-has-shared ].

But I dare you to find me an English translation that knows this. The NRSV, ESV, NASB, CEB, NET, and Lexham translations all have "the children share," and the translations that differ still place the children as the subject of the first part. Everyone does it: they change the verb to match the noun! Even Luther did it in German!

But we're not listening to the translations. We're listening to the Greek, and in the Greek we hear a third-person singular subject of the verb. Who could that be? We've just had three scripture citations relying on a singular subject, and they support an association between a singular actor and a plural group. The Son and the sons, his siblings; the one sanctifier and the ones sanctified. We've done nothing but talk about the Son since 1:2! Who, then, does the listener fill in as the singular subject of the verb?

Now, admittedly, the verb does give us fits looking at the sentence the author gave us. The verb koinoneo, as a verb of sharing, normally takes genitive objects for the things that are shared, and then dative objects for the people they are shared with. We share some of something, and we share it with someone. Verbs of sharing don't normally take accusative objects at all, because you can't share a whole thing. You can give a whole thing, but you can only share some of it.

Now, the good news about this is that, when we hear two genitive objects after the verb, we know automatically what to do with them: [ x-has-shared blood and flesh ]. And then there's a pause, followed by kai autos, and we know we have a new clause, the second part of the inference, beginning with the same singular subject.

So what do we do with ta paidia, which we've been holding on to since before the verb? If it belongs in this part of the sentence, it has to belong to this verb. And if it is not what is shared, and it is not the subject, it must be the people with whom the blood and flesh are shared. Listening is rough like this—we dump the remaining object in the spot left for it and move on! This means that we understand [ since therefore the children he-has-shared blood and flesh ] as "since therefore he has shared blood and flesh with the children," and we keep listening to the rest in order to get the point.

(Now, we can justify the accusative case, and in fact I did so right at the beginning. We have the same exact form in the scripture citation immediately prior. And while it might have been clearer, grammatically, if the author had repeated the same words in the dative case, I honestly don't think this troubles the listener one bit! After all, it wouldn't have been an echo, then, would it? The audience actually benefits from the echo of the last object into the new sentence. Think of it as citation. The author did the same thing in 2:9, but with enough words strung together that he could change the verb forms and still keep the echo.)

So we have the first part of the inference, "Since therefore he has shared flesh and blood with 'the children,'" and it's followed immediately by kai autos, [ also he ], our singular subject again. And that's followed by an adverb, another verb of sharing, and a plural genitive object.

Now, let's talk pronoun reference. We hear this first subject pronoun, autos, and line it up with the subject of the last verb. The adverb, paraplesios, means "nearly equally," and the verb of sharing again has a genitive object, but this time it's one plural pronoun. What are the "them" being shared? We line it up with the objects of the last verb, "blood and flesh." So we're reusing the same subject and direct objects of the first bit.

What do we hear in the middle? We hear that adverb, "nearly equally," and the verb metecho, which is (crudely) "to have with"—"to partake of" if we want to get fancy. The first verb of sharing was koinoneo, which simply refers to having things in common. So what is the author really saying, if we nuance the verbs? "Since, therefore, the Son has flesh and blood in common with the children of God, he partook nearly equally of them ..."

Yes, that's not a period at the end. The sentence isn't done yet! The next thing we hear is the discourse marker hina, and it tells us that we're about to get the real reason why. Let's copy it down here:
ἵνα διὰ τοῦ θανάτου καταργήσῃ τὸν τὸ κράτος ἔχοντα τοῦ θανάτου, τοῦτ’ ἔστιν τὸν διάβολον, καὶ ἀπαλλάξῃ τούτους, ὅσοι φόβῳ θανάτου διὰ παντὸς τοῦ ζῆν ἔνοχοι ἦσαν δουλείας.
Now, this is also beautiful syntax in its own right, but I'm stretching your attention span as it is, so here's what it says:
"... so that through death he could neutralize death's hold on power (that is, the Accuser) and set them free—as many as were subject to slavery throughout their entire lives for fear of death."
Think about this in context. The standard translations all leave you with the idea that, because humans have flesh and blood, the Son had to acquire flesh and blood, to become one who shares flesh and blood with us, in order to do this. But the Greek says something different. It says that, because the Son and the children of God had flesh and blood in common already, Jesus took up his own flesh and blood, to very nearly the same degree as we have it, in order to do this.

Think about that. No, this is not orthodox Christology, but you can't let orthodox Christology get in the way of scripture. The question of the divinity and humanity of Jesus is a very complicated one, and this is one of the early answers to it, using Judean messianic soteriology and priestly atonement. Why is experiencing death the triumph for which Jesus is crowned? Why is it the appropriate messianic fulfillment? Because the security for which we are destined with God is security from the power of death. Security from guilt, and security from the Accuser who is the power of death because of guilt. The Son has experienced death for us, the one for the many, to take away its power over us. The Son has died, and is crowned in triumph and elevated over the whole earthly and heavenly creation, in order to put an end to the enslaving power of death over us.

This is the perfect completion of God's prior acts, mentioned in 2:10, who "after bringing many children into glory, perfected the origin of their salvation through sufferings." Jesus is the crowning of a sequence of actions in history, and we are the result of those actions, and in Jesus we find our security as children of God, rescued from failure, guilt, and death. As 2:16 goes on to say, this could not be done by an angel. No angel of the heavenly creation shares our nature. It could only be done by the offspring of Abraham, one who shares their flesh and blood. And this is what 2:14 tells us: that Jesus, and no angel, has saved us—because he is one of us, and took up our nature not as an alien being, but as one who already shared in it with us.

See what you can find out if you listen carefully?


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